Naughty or Nice?
Whether in Sondheim or Ibsen or The Who, Michael Cerveris is comfortable
walking, and blurring, the line between good guy and bad guy.
Michael Cerveris is a man of many talents, but his greatest one might be juggling-not literally, of course, but in the sense of keeping a lot of gigs in the air, almost always at the same time.
Last year, he was starring in the Kurt Weill bio-musical LoveMusik on Broadway while rehearsing for the role of Kent in the Public's King Lear. As 2008 comes to a close, the juggling act has been equally if not more daunting: He's performing the role of rakish con man Wilson Mizner in Stephen Sondheimís new musical Road Show (running at the Public through Dec. 28); he's rehearsing the lead role of Tesman opposite Mary-Louise Parker in director Ian Rickson's Broadway-bound Hedda Gabler, for which previews start in early January; and about two weeks before Christmas, on an off-night of Road Show, Cerveris appeared in a 15-year anniversary concert that reunited the original cast of The Who's Tommy, with him reprising the title role that put him on the theatrical map.
Oh, and there are those occasional episodes of Fringe, Fox's X-Files-like TV show, in which the bald-pated actor appears as a mysterious recurring figure called simply The Observer-a character he's been assured will play a more central role as the series' underlying mystery unfolds.
"Supposedly I'm going to be like the Cigarette Smoking Man on The X-Files-someone with a big part to play in the overall storyline," Cerveris says on a break from Hedda rehearsals. "But right now I'm like 'Where's Waldo' passing through. I don't even know if I'm a good guy or bad guy."
That would seem to be a recurring theme for Cerveris, who has never shied away from the dark side: He won a Tony for playing John Wilkes Booth in Sondheim's Assassins, and made a singular impression in the title role of Sondheim's, or anyone's, darkest musical, Sweeney Todd.
"One of the particular gifts of the things I've done with Sondheim, and in Road Show with him and John Weidman, is that they write characters who are dark or troubled, sort of unappealing people, but they find a way to make them appealing, or charming or seductive, so that we find ourselves rooting for them," Cerveris explains. "Then, at the right moment, they pull the rug out and remind you just what you've been cheering for, and make you think about to what extent you're complicit in letting these people get away with these things."
This is particularly true of the Mizner brothers depicted in Sondheim and Weidman's musical. Confidence men par excellence, they were best known for exploiting credulous home buyers in a 1920s Florida land boom, although Addison Mizner, played by Alexander Gemignani, was a talented architect, and Wilson, played by Cerveris had a seemingly in-born knack for-well, as he puts it, for 'the game.'
"I think in a way he was happy all the time," says Cerveris, when asked if Wilson, who seemed to run from scheme to scam in a mad dash, was ever really happy. "That's what so fun about playing him-he's so unrepentant. He's not self-relfective. He's the kind of person who thinks, If times are tough, it's just an invitation to figure out the next thing to do to make money. He probably feels worst when everything around him is content and peaceful."
Put another way: "He's an absolutely reckless destructive agent, but it's done in such a kind of carefree and joyous way."
His mother, for one, while not quite approving, nevertheless finds his zest for life thrilling, at one point singing to his mortified brother Addison: "If he had the slightest sense of shame/It would be a shame."
That's not the issue faced by Jorgen Tesman, the meek academic in Ibsen's immortal tale of thwarted aspiration and repressed sexual gamesmanship, Hedda Gabler. Though Cerveris agrees that some would expect him to play Tesman's fiery, dissipated rival Lovborg, or even Hedda's saturnine confidant, Judge Brack, Cerveris is drawn to the rather unsympathetic role of Hedda's unloved, overstarched husband-in part because of the chance to play against the expectations of audiences.
"The director, Ian Rickson, and I are both interested in not doing a traditional mousy doormat with Tesman,î Cerveris says. ìIt diminishes Hedda if you see that's what she connected herself with. A stronger-willed Tesman is not always easy, and I'm not sure it's supported by Ibsen, who I think had something more simplistic in mind, so it's a real challenge to see how much we can stretch the character and relationships."
Perhaps the versatile Cerveris is a virtual contortionist as well as a virtual juggler.